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Boris opens the books

Wallace new Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance welcomes the launch by Boris Johnson of the London DataStore as a breakthrough for Google Government - especially in showing where money is spent.

The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is a gadget obsessive’s dream. Among the new products unveiled there this week have been a Star Wars toy that literally allows you to use the power of your mind to move objects; a helicopter that can be remote controlled from your phone; and a Swiss Army knife that opens garage doors wirelessly.

All pretty amazing stuff, but within the kind of thing you might imagine you’d find at the world’s annual showcase for useful and/or fun gizmos. Amongst the high end toys, cutting edge technology and imaginative boffins, though, was something less normal – an announcement about a new development in British local government.

On Thursday, Boris Johnson took to the stage, alongside the White House’s chief technology officer and the chief information officer of NASA, to announce the London DataStore.

The DataStore is the latest development in the move towards fully transparent local government. Currently in its prototype stage, but expected to become much larger and better after its official launch at the end of January, it takes a real leap towards providing the public with large amounts of accessible information that – crucially – they can manipulate themselves. The Local Government Chronicle reports that the initial datasets will include:

“A wide range of information, from health statistics, census data and population predictions through to the numbers of sexually transmitted infections diagnosed, average football stadium attendances and gifts and hospitality registers.”

According to the GLA, all the data that will be made accessible through the DataStore will be provided as Google documents, meaning that anyone downloading it will be able to feed it into their own spreadsheets, play about with it and produce their own analyses and interpretations of it. Furthermore, they’ll actually be encouraged to do so, with Channel 4 offering a £100,000 prize for the best ideas for applications to interpret and communicate the DataStore’s information to the public.

This is a fantastic development that is extremely positive news for London’s taxpayers. Hopefully such ideas will form the basis of the Google Government policies that have been discussed by George Osborne among others, and which should feature prominently in the upcoming Tory manifesto.

The last 25 years have certainly seen massive changes in terms of public sector transparency, but the current situation still leaves an awful lot to be desired. Even now, with the revolutionary Freedom of Information Act, the default position for the vast majority of data held by public sector bodies is still for it to be held behind closed doors.

Even the information which is published regularly and voluntarily is often patchy and in less than useful formats. The public sector as a whole has been very slow to accept that providing information in tables in a PDF document is a very unhelpful and limiting form of transparency. That may be down to a lack of sufficient computer or data literacy, but many - including myself - have long suspected it is also because of a deliberate desire in some quarters to obstruct the march of transparency.

While the public sector as a whole remains broadly secretive, it is true that some areas of local government have been streets ahead of many of their public sector colleagues. Take, for example, the allowances and expenses paid to politicians.

The Parliamentary authorities have insisted for years on only publishing general category-by-category totals for each MP’s expenses and allowances in PDF format documents. Producing such documents involves the laborious process of copying data from a spreadsheet across into a PDF writer and then formatting it. The end product, though, is less useful to the media, the public or anyone else wanting to assess the information than the original spreadsheet that you started off with.

The result is that on the day when the totals for MPs’ expenses are published, each newspaper, TV channel, press agency and interested campaign group have to either start bashing away frantically at calculators, or – if they are more tech-savvy – ripping the data out of its PDF straitjacket and recreating the original spreadsheet that is still locked away on someone’s computer in the Fees Office.

Taxpayers’ money is wasted, companies’ money is wasted, individual citizens’ time is wasted, people are put off trying to assess information that they would normally be interested in and ill will festers between all and sundry.

By comparison, the Local Government Association has for the last few years published a full, searchable spreadsheet of the allowances paid to each level of councillor at almost every council in the country. This makes life much easier for all involved (or at least it did until they tried to keep the spreadsheet secret last year in the aftermath of the MPs’ expenses scandal).

Even more radically, as I have reported here in the past, Windsor and Maidenhead have recently started publishing all expenditure over £500 for their taxpayers and voters to scrutinise.

So, this new initiative from the Mayor of London is not entirely without precedent. However, it is a major jump forward in the power available to the people of London. With a highly computer literate population, and a large amount of information set to be handed over to them in a useful and accessible format, I think we will see some very impressive developments in the scrutiny of Government in London thanks to the DataStore in the next few months.

People want to see this information, they undoubtedly have the skills to manipulate it in a myriad of imaginative ways, and all they have been waiting for is for someone to open it up to them. Boris Johnson has done that, and he should be congratulated for it.


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